Near us in Richmond is a gatehouse built by Henry VII in around 1500. It is one of the few remaining parts of his palace. Each time I walk through its archway I become aware that I am occupying the same space through which once passed the likes of Henry VII, Henry VIII, Elizabeth I, and, on occasion, William Shakespeare. While sharing space with a group like this is fun, sharing it with individual luminaries of the past for whom I feel an affinity, gives me a greater buzz. It is as though I have made their acquaintance. In fact, making such acquaintances is something I seek out, and that is what I did over the summer.
We were in Paris near the Brasserie Balzar in the Rue des Écoles and it was inevitable that I would want to peep inside. In the 1960s Jean-Paul Sartre was one of its regulars and I had to see, and, if possible be near to, where he sat. An aproned waiter welcomed me in and pointed to Sartre’s table in an alcove at the back. A second waiter then showed me where Sartre would sit when his customary place was taken. Although no expert, I have grown to admire his philosophy (see: Sartre had an Answer, joecollier.blog, 3 September 2017), and being there in ‘his’ restaurant gave me one of my space-sharing moments. It was a pleasure to make his acquaintance.
Unlike my unplanned ‘meeting’ with Sartre, there was no element of chance when, a few weeks earlier on Belle-Île en Mer, I visited the haunts of a hero of mine – the Australian impressionist John Peter Russell (see Lasting Impressionist, joecollier.blog, 14 March 2017). The island was his home from 1888 to 1908.
Each year my wife Rohan and I go somewhere special to celebrate our wedding anniversary. It was thanks to Russell that this year we went to his island just off the Brittany coast. For months I had been wondering how I could see where he lived and worked, and our anniversary trip offered the ideal opportunity.
Discovery was made difficult because the Island has almost completely erased him and his work from its history. With his seascapes in mind, I was soon able to trace where he must have set up his easel to paint the “Needles” “(Les Aiguilles”), a rocky outcrop lapped by the sea. Just standing, staring and space-sharing was fulfilling. Finding where he lived was more of a struggle. In the early 1920s, the ‘English Castle’, as the house he built was named, was torn down to make way for a hotel. However, thanks to a contemporary newspaper cutting, I discovered where his castle once stood and by climbing over a prickly hedge and walking along a hillside path, I looked down over Goulphar Bay which he so loved. Standing at the same vantage point that once was his, was special.
Finally, at the local cemetery, I stood at the foot of the tomb he built for Marianna Antonietta, his adored wife and the mother of his eleven children. She died when only 42 and he was devastated. Soon afterwards he burned four hundred or so of his canvasses and essentially abandoned his career as a painter. Being there identifying with his anguish was very moving.
I identified with, and felt close to, Sartre and Russell. I had no such feelings towards Sarah Bernhardt so when I walked around the converted fort she made her holiday home also on Belle-Île, I was a visitor and nothing more. I did feel a little closer on discovering that Bernhardt, like my mother, was not only an actress and Jewish, but also ended up having a leg amputated. But even this rather personal coincidence did not make for space-sharing magic.
Setting aside the sightseeing, we were on the island primarily to celebrate our wedding anniversary and our four days there were a great success. On the actual day we were joined by one of our witnesses from almost fifty years ago who, by chance, was staying nearby. At the restaurant, with its tables covered by white cotton tablecloths, the food was delicious, the ambiance relaxed, the staff quietly informed and the bill very reasonable. To top it all, at the end of the meal the chef presented us with a cake with the words “joyeux anniversaire” atop – our witness must have tipped him off!
The wish to share space with, or touch the possessions of family and friends who were once close is normal; the pleasure I get from sharing space, and identifying with luminaries from the past, is very different and might be seen as odd, but it is what I do. Perhaps, by making my acquaintances, I am trying to bring ancients back to the present, creating for them some immortality. I wonder if I am wishing for something of the same for myself.
Illustration: Russell’s ‘Les Aiguilles’